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The Legal Question at the Center of the Alec Baldwin Criminal Case

The actor was informed that the gun he was practicing with on the “Rust” set did not have live ammunition when it fired, killing the cinematographer. Is he culpable for manslaughter?

A grand jury’s indictment of Alec Baldwin in 2021 for involuntary manslaughter on the set of the film “Rust” in New Mexico has triggered a legal battle with intricate contours. If the case goes to trial, prosecutors face the challenge of convincing jurors whether Baldwin was criminally negligent either due to recklessness with the firearm or “complete disregard or indifference for the safety of others” while working — even though investigators found no live rounds in the gun he handled during rehearsals and strict safety measures were assured on set.

Baldwin’s defense team must clarify why the gun was discharged. Baldwin consistently claims he never pulled the trigger that day, citing a practice scenario where he pulled the hammer back on a revolver, only for it to misfire after the hammer was released. Forensic findings supporting the assertion that the trigger had to be pulled contribute to reviving the criminal case against Baldwin for unintentional killing.

Legal experts are divided on the merits of reviving the case, with some arguing that traditional firearm safety rules, like never pointing a gun at anyone, are not always applicable on a film set. The jury will need to grapple with two key questions: should Baldwin have been aware of the potential danger in his actions that day? And, applying a word from criminal law, did he act with “gross negligence” concerning the safety of others?

The complex web of factors, including the status of the gun, which malfunctioned during the FBI examination, the ongoing investigation, and Baldwin’s role as a producer responsible for on-set safety alongside the film’s armorers, such as Hana Gutierrez-Reed, adds layers of complexity to the case.

Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge and criminal law professor at New Mexico University, emphasizes the challenging nature of proving such arguments before a jury, emphasizing the importance of whether Baldwin, or anyone holding a gun, had a duty to inquire and ensure its safety.

The grand jury’s decision to charge Alec Baldwin with involuntary manslaughter has set the stage for a high-stakes legal battle, where the jury must unanimously determine that he is criminally liable beyond a reasonable doubt. Veteran defense attorney Steve Aarons acknowledges the complexity of the case, noting that it differs from situations where one has a gun and believes there might be live rounds.

The intricate legal arguments expected during the trial will likely involve a detailed examination of Baldwin’s knowledge of potential dangers and whether he acted responsibly in handling the firearm. The legal battle, as it unfolds, will delve into the broader questions of accountability and responsibility on a film set, placing the actions of Alec Baldwin under intense legal scrutiny.

Attorney and former prosecutor Mark E. Greno in New Mexico suggests that the new case against Alec Baldwin might shape up as a battle over the industry’s “standard practices” in film and television. This legal skirmish could involve opposing views and examples related to safety and responsibility.

Union’s Defense Against Criminal Charges on Set Safety

Last year, following criminal charges against Alec Baldwin, the SAG-AFTRA union, representing actors in film and television, opposed the prosecutors’ argument that the actor was responsible for ensuring the safety of the guns provided on set. They emphasized that an actor’s role doesn’t necessitate expertise in handling firearms or pyrotechnics.

Revised Safety Protocols Post-Halyna Hutchins Tragedy

The tragic shooting of Halyna Hutchins prompted a major overhaul of safety protocols. New guidelines, published in December, are more detailed and extensive than their predecessors. They stress the importance of distinguishing between live ammunition and dummy rounds during safety meetings and dictate that live rounds should never be used on set.

Strict Prohibition of Live Ammunition on Set

The guidelines explicitly state that live ammunition should never be used on set, studio lots, stages, or any work location. This policy aims to prevent rare occurrences and exceptions, ensuring that live ammunition is kept away from film and television productions.

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